Lowell Bailey wins 1st U.S. gold medal at biathlon worlds

Veteran Lowell Bailey became the first U.S. biathlete to win a world championship gold medal in a sport where Europeans have maintained a near-total stranglehold, winning the 20-kilometer individual title Thursday in Hochfilzen, Austria.

Bailey, 35, broke an historic drought in an event held since 1958. The only other North American athlete to win a world title is Canada's Myriam Bedard, the 1993 women's 7.5-kilometer sprint champion. Bailey's U.S. teammate Tim Burke won a world silver medal in the 20-kilometer event in 2013.

Bailey considered retiring last year after he and his wife Erika had their first child, a daughter. He told ESPN his accomplishment "still hadn't sunk in.''

"I haven't even changed out of my race tights yet,'' he said a couple hours later amid a whirlwind of interviews.

Biathlon combines the endurance required for distance cross-country skiing with the focus of target shooting. Bailey has persevered in the sport at the elite level since 2001, with just one other major international podium to his name, in a 2014 World Cup event. He came close earlier at the 2017 worlds, notching a fourth place in the 10-kilometer sprint that guaranteed him a spot on the 2018 Olympic team, and a sixth in the pursuit event.

On Thursday, Bailey edged Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic by 3.3 seconds. Reigning Olympic and three-time defending world champion Martin Fourcade of France missed two targets and finished 21.2 seconds behind to take the bronze medal.

"This is the most perfect day of my biathlon career," Bailey told reporters on site in Austria.

"We had our daughter Ophelia this summer, which made things much more interesting as a family. So we had to be creative in how I train and what I did this year. But it all worked out and I am so thankful for them, and everyone who has helped me so far."

The moment was almost as sweet for U.S. Biathlon Association president and CEO Max Cobb, who spoke to ESPN after presenting Bailey with his gold medal.

"'Giving this to you is the greatest honor of my life,'" Cobb said he told Bailey on the podium. "He looked me right in the eye and said, 'For me, too.' It was magical.

"Being in the finish area and hearing the crowd, as loud for him as for anyone, will stay with me forever," Cobb said. "It speaks to how much people respect him, not the least because of his work for clean sport."

Bailey, Burke and other U.S. athletes have taken prominent roles in an athlete-driven movement to impose harsher penalties on countries with multiple doping violations in the wake of the World Anti-Doping Agency-commissioned investigation of Russian sport.

At a January meeting with federation officials, Fourcade led a walkout when it appeared there would be no action, and the biathletes said they would consider disrupting race starts.

Their stepped-up activism compelled biathlon officials to start drafting new sanctioning rules they say would be implemented before next season, and helped push the decision to withdraw the 2021 world championships from Russia.

"It was good to be on the podium with Martin and Ondrej, from two of the strongest nations fighting for clean sport," Bailey told ESPN Thursday.

In a January interview with ESPN, Bailey spoke of the frustration he felt at having to compete against Russian athletes whose anti-doping agency has been suspended for more than a year, throwing their testing regimen into question. But he emphasized that the problem crosses borders and should not be reduced to a nationalistic feud.

"I think what's important for people to know is that this isn't a group of athletes trying to narrow the field, or gang up on one country," Bailey said in that interview. "It's just about eradicating doping from our sport, whether that means sanctioning athletes from Russia or the U.S. It has nothing to do with nationality.

"What's clear is that our existing punishments are not adequate deterrents. We've had the same punishment structure for a long time. What we're trying to accomplish is meaningful change. We're tired of hearing about legal red tape that can't be surmounted. Within the international World Cup field, there are tons of passionate athletes who care about stepping outside the athlete bubble. That's the only reason we've had this traction. It's great to see from my side.''

Bailey's gold is the fourth medal for an American biathlete at the worlds.

The others were a silver in 1987 for Josh Thompson in the individual 20-kilometer competition, a bronze in 1984 by the women's relay team of Holly Beatie, Julie Newman and Kari Swenson, and Burke's 2013 silver.

Bailey grew up in the Lake Placid, New York, area with Burke and Bill Demong, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist in Nordic Combined. The three competed against each other as kids, and Thursday, Demong cried at home in Utah as he watched Bailey take the historic win.

"Lowell is one the best human beings on the planet and his hard work and dedication to his sport, his team and his family are second to none,'' said Demong, now executive director of the national governing body, USA Nordic Sport. "This really couldn't happen to a more deserving guy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.